I just spent a thoroughly enjoyable couple of days at CPRafrica 2011 in Nairobi, hosted by the University of Nairobi and ResearchICTAfrica! teams. There was a good mix of old-hands and several young scholars from across the continent. Although it was a a fairly academic group there was strong participation by organisations such as IDRC, OECD, LIRNE Asia, DIRSI, KICTAnet from Kenya, and ICASA, DoC, and Telkom from South Africa.
Since the focus is on ICT policy in Africa, there was an inherently developmental angle to many of the discussions. Most of the presentations on the first day looked at:
- Factors influencing provision (e.g., corruption, competition) and adoption (e.g., gender, income, marital status!) of ICTs in Africa.
- Variations in usage according to subgroups (e.g., less educated users tended to focus on social networking apps whilst more educated users had a more diverse range of activities)
- The effect of ICTs on socio-economic development (e.g., GDP, quality of life).
Later presentations looked at more specific institutional and policy issues such as the impact and measurement of competition (is HHI good enough?), the effects of mobile termination regulations, the convergence of regulatory functions, and participation in policy development.
Some personal thoughts from the conference:
- Broadband investment: There is an emerging bandwidth capacity crisis (particularly on international links) in many countries due to expected growth in mobile data. This raises questions for Africa around stimulating investment in this infrastructure, the re-emergence of the state as primary stakeholder in large broadband projects, benefits and risks around apparently altruistic partnerships with Chinese vendors, ownership and structure of cable investment coalitions, open access policies, peering arrangements and IXPs, location of content, amongst others. Also, the use of regulations (e.g., open access) around broadband infrastructure will need to be applied selectively (e.g., where there are bottlenecks).
- Decision-making tools: A second point was that whilst regulators need to make informed, evidence-based decisions (e.g., through regulatory impact assessments (RIAs)), they do need to be strategic in focusing on critical issues (and local loop unbundling (LLU) is probably not one of them in many African countries), and excercising forbearance on others. Conducting RIAs prior to policy implementation could have an unintended consequence of overcomplicating or delaying policy processes. As one alternative, benchmarking has been argued to be a more efficient decision-making approach (at CPRafrica 2010).
- Cooperation and independence: Some presenters suggested that there is a disconnect between regulators and operators, and there were calls for greater cooperation/ consultation, which seems reasonable. But to what extent does the arms-length relationship need to be maintained or protected to ensure independence not just from government but also from operators?
- Multistakeholderism: Related to the above point: there is a growing effort to support authentic multistakeholderism in ICT policy processes stemming largely from WSIS (the participation of KICTANet, a Kenyan civil society network, on the Communication Commission of Kenya board is a good example):
- But how is this really achieved – timing, structures, etc.? A rushed policy process is probably not going to enable much authentic participation.
- And how can ICT policy issues be presented in an easily understandable way to the wider public to encourage greater participation?
- Third, are there more technical issues that are not necessarily ‘public’, such as spectrum allocation decisions, and who decides?
- Finally, there are variable definitions and understandings of technologies and policy issues (e.g., ‘broadband’, privacy) in different contexts.
- Regional collaboration: So how do African countries and communities respond to defacto global standards around issues like privacy by global actors such as Google. Through greater regional cooperation and collective engagement with multi-national service providers? What else does regional harmonisation and cooperation around ICT governance bring? For example, it was suggested that the East African Community was able to resist the economic crisis fairly well because of strong intra-regional trade (in addition to the high price of commodities!).
- Research methods: A few methodological notes:
- Use a theoretical framework and then tie your research findings to it. This might have been in the papers but it wasn’t presented well.
- Case studies are important to better understand why accepted economic models/ techniques do not fully explain variation in outcomes.
- Whilst contextual case studies are potentially useful they should be more comparative by making explicit reference to similar case studies – and a theoretical framework.
- More in-depth institutional analysis is needed to explain why best practice policies or models don’t always work or have variable impacts. For example, why putting broadcasting and telecoms regulators in the same office doesn’t result in converged regulation, and why local hosting of content may be more efficient from a bandwidth perspective but carries greater political risk for those providing the content if local authorities don’t agree with the issues being discussed.
- Research quality and impact: Finally, there was some interesting research but it feels like quite a ‘young’ research community. There wasn’t anything particularly groundbreaking and it lacked the credibility and logical reasoning (to abuse Helani Galpaya’s reference to Aristotle) needed to really impact policy. Nonetheless, this is one of the most inspiring and productive gatherings I’ve been to so I look forward to looking back on it in 20 years time and thinking that this is where African ICT policy grew up.
Looking fwd to CPRafrica 2012!